Excelsior, true believers! Nick here again, penning these gladsome tidings from my grand scriptorium full of musty scrolls and ancient cartridges. Alas, it’s been quite a while since I checked in with all of you – well over a year, in fact, with the release of the first Trails of Cold Steel. With that giant title now roaming free in the wild like the majestic brachiosaurs in Jurassic Park, you may have wondered what I’ve been working on over the course of the last year. It always seems to unintentionally happen that I get assigned to projects I can’t talk about for significant lengths of time, but this stretch has easily been the longest. So many times I’ve wanted to tell you some quirky story or fun little side-note about this game as I worked through its script, but alas, the official XSEED duct tape was covering my mouth – until very recently, that is.
In our yearly lead-up to the gaming extravaganza that is E3, we finally announced my long-in-coming project: the classic Falcom action RPG Zwei 2, making its debut outside of Japan as Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection!
Of course, I’ve also helped out with a variety of other, more time-sensitive projects, leading to Zwei taking a bit longer to bring to you than it would have otherwise, but I think we’ve got something you’ll really enjoy in the making here. And conveniently, the benefit of the slow going is that the release isn’t too far off now. As Zwei II enters its final stretch before release, I wanted to tell you more about the game – which is exactly what I’ll do, over the course of the next couple weeks.
Zwei II has an interesting history: released in 2008, it was the very last game Falcom developed exclusively for PC. Back then, the PC gaming market was far from being the robust, thriving scene we know it as today, especially the Japanese market. Thus, the title seemed almost fated to fly under the radar despite its quality craftsmanship and hours of fun. But now, with the worldwide PC game market booming and digital storefronts ensuring copies can get into the hands of anyone who wants to play, it felt like the right time to fill this conspicuous gap in Falcom’s lineage.
“But…what about the first Zwei?” you may be pondering aloud to your monitor. If you’re wondering whether you’ll be at a disadvantage playing the second game in the series before the first, worry not! I’ve played both (thanks to Tom’s Japanese boxed copies) and can confirm that Zwei II gives you all the info you need to understand the world, its plot, and its characters. There was a 7-year gap between the first and second Zwei games in Japan, and Falcom couldn’t assume players would’ve played the earlier entry, so the structure is something more akin to Trails in the Sky versus Trails of Cold Steel, where the games take place in the same world, but in different locations and with different casts. This makes it easy to jump right in.
To start things off, I wanted to sit down and flesh out the game a little for you, since compared to its siblings in the Ys series, and even Xanadu, it’s far less known by fans. What is the Zwei series? What makes it great? How does it play? Why is it cool?
Let’s start from the ground up: the name of the game. “Zwei” is simply the German word for “two” and, as you’ll soon discover, it’s a very fitting title – the game features not one, but two protagonists. Our leads in Zwei II are Ragna Valentine, a lively treasure hunter and pilot-for-hire, and Alwen du Moonbria, a confident vampire princess looking to avenge herself against an unknown enemy. How these two very different people meet and come to really understand (and maybe even appreciate) each other is the relationship that forms the heart of the game, and I’ve done my best to make that journey of growth and understanding a fun and memorable one. And, as with any good RPG, the journey is not without obstacles to overcome. Fortunately, our hero and heroine are up to the task, with Ragna skilled at mixing it up in melee, and Alwen versed in the ways of magic. You can swap between them at any time, and whoever you’re not controlling runs along behind you, ready to leap into the lead role at the press of a button.
Zwei II’s combat is action-based, not unlike the Ys games or Gurumin, but the two-character setup creates an interesting dynamic in combat. Over the course of the game, Ragna will be able to upgrade his weapon, the half chain-whip/half katar Anchor Gear, into several different forms, and Alwen (who begins the game bereft of most of her magic) will regain her powerful spells. You end up being able to do some interesting things, like using a claw-variant of Ragna’s Anchor Gear to grab an enemy, then throw it into another enemy, knocking both into a corner, then swapping to Alwen and unloading a fiery salvo on them. Or have Alwen cast her whirlwind magic to sweep up a couple enemies and keep them stun-locked, then swap to Ragna to leap into the air and string together a midair combo on them. In many dungeons, I often found myself favoring one or the other to take the lead because of the strategies I came up with to best deal with certain types of enemies, and you’ll likely fall into styles of play that fit the way you prefer to approach the game’s combat as well.
And speaking of approaches to combat, Zwei II has a rather unique leveling system, too. In the game, you don’t earn EXP from quests, or from beating up monsters. You actually earn it by eating food – the same food you use to heal yourself when you’re running low on HP. There’s even a “food exchange” service available at the restaurant in the main village of Artte that lets you trade 10 of any one type of food for one of another type that gives more EXP than the ten individual pieces of food would have if eaten on their own (example: trade 10 cheeses worth 10 EXP each for a single pizza worth 150 EXP). Will you chow down now, or hoard in the hopes of cashing in for savory plates of EXP-rich cuisine? You decide! It probably sounds weird (it certainly did to me when I first learned about it), but in practice, it actually works really well. It frees you up from having to grind in dungeons, or feel like you absolutely MUST kill every enemy on the way to your destination. It also gives you a lot of control over your own challenge level. When I was playing the Japanese version of the game, my loose rule was that I’d never eat food just to level – I’d just use it when I was hurt, to restore HP. I ended up going through most of the game under-leveled because of this, but never TOO under-leveled, because the more under-leveled I was, the more damage I’d take, thus getting infusions of EXP more frequently from using food to heal myself. There’s a strange sort of balance to it, and the game isn’t stingy about giving you food in chests, as drops from enemies, and even from giant slot machines you’ll find in each dungeon, so you can decide whether you want to blow through the game as a force of nature but with less on-demand healing available, or a bit underpowered but with a fully-stocked pantry.
If that talk of slot machines that dispense food or trading wedges of cheese for a pizza sounds a little…weird, that’s by design. More than any Falcom game I can think of, the Zwei series embraces its sense of humor, poking in good-spirited fun at its two main characters, the townspeople, and even many of the foes you face down along the way. It’s got a lively, colorful, and cartoonish art style that has helped the graphics hold up well, too. You probably know from personal experience that stories more focused on being comedic sometimes run the risk of not being able to successfully shift into a more serious mode when the story calls for it, but thankfully, Zwei II doesn’t suffer from this issue. It’s surprisingly adept at conveying a serious atmosphere when the story calls for it, making for some excellent dramatic moments, and even a dab of pathos here and there. But on the whole, Zwei II is a game that feels deeply informed by 90s anime and manga, with all the oddness and charm that comes with that. I can certainly say that being rooted in that style proved fertile ground for my work to help the game achieve its comedic potential (speaking as a weeb from ancient times), and I’m already planning my next blog post to focus on some of the details of the writing and the characters.
One thing I love about Zwei II is that it reaches out and really grabs you from the start. In just the first 20-30 minutes, you get the following ace setup (obviously, skip these next two paragraphs if you want to go in totally blind):
The game begins in the skies, as courier pilot Ragna Valentine is cruising in his cool red biplane, the Tristan, toward the island of Ilvard on a routine delivery mission. Suddenly, he’s ambushed by unknown assailants, and after a dogfight against a pair of dragon-riders in the skies over Ilvard, his plane takes a bad hit and plummets toward the land below. The next thing he knows, he wakes up in a bed in the nearby town of Artte as the town doctor marvels at how he came out of such a crushing impact with barely a scratch. After all, his plane didn’t fare nearly as well. Going out to investigate the crash site, Ragna finds his plane on a hill on the outskirts of town, busted up and snapped in half just as the doctor said. So how did he even survive such a nasty crash?
Well…he almost didn’t. After that crash, as he lay among the wreckage, broken of body and bleeding out, he was rescued from his mortal fate by none other than Princess Alwen du Moonbria. Alwen isn’t your ordinary RPG princess, though: she’s a sharp-tongued shut-in vampire princess. Not too long before the start of the story, Alwen’s castle was invaded by a mysterious foe who ultimately seized the stronghold and gave her the boot, after stripping her of her ancestral magic. Seeing the outsider Ragna as her best bet to help her search for her magic and retake her castle, she takes some of his blood and gives him some of hers, sealing a pact that turns him into her ‘Blood Knight’ – a warrior in thrall to a powerful Trueblood vampire whose physical abilities and regenerative capacity far exceed what humans are capable of. But Ragna, see, is all about freedom and doing things his way, and he hates the idea of working as anyone’s lackey. After realizing the situation he’s in, though, he strikes a deal with Alwen: he’ll help her get her castle back as thanks for saving his life…but instead of being master and servant, they’ll do it as equals.
And so, our story begins.
Cool, right? And that all happens in fairly short order – no longwinded tutorials, no hours of quests before the gears really start to spin. Zwei II has a lot of heart and a lot of dialogue, and to its credit, it seldom feels like it drags. The story starts with a bang and keeps things moving at a good clip.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to do, though. The island of Ilvard is dotted with thriving communities and, in the fashion of the Trails or Ys games, they’re populated with fleshed-out NPCs who have their own small story arcs and conflicts to overcome over the course of the game, with dialogue that changes frequently after progressing the main story. Some of the residents are funny, some are petulant, and some are just downright strange, so I hope you enjoy getting to know all of them over the many times you’ll visit the towns. You might even stumble upon unique scenes, a secret hint, or a good ol’ fashioned RPG quest (you know, the kind from back before there were convenient quest logs to keep track of things). And of course, what with Zwei II being focused on Ragna and Alwen as dual protagonists, they’ll often have unique things to say in response to other characters depending on whom you’ve got in the lead.
In the course of working on the game’s script, I observed with no small amount of fascination that in some ways, it almost seems like Zwei II was made more with Westerners in mind than the Japanese market. Ragna himself is an incredibly un-Japanese character, with his bravado, easygoing swagger, and sass, but he’s a character that I know will click instantly with the North American audience in particular. We see Ragnas in our books and films; we all probably know someone like him, or who has elements of his personality. Alwen, too, is a character I think will be well-liked by the West. Not content to lament the loss of her home or sit idly by, she picks herself up and decides to get even and take back everything that was taken from her even though it promises to be an uphill battle. The core of her personality is her self-assured nature – even when confronting a world she’s mainly just read about (in books that were, sadly, out of date on the latest trends and customs). Quick-witted and keen, she matches Ragna tit-for-tat, helping the two play well off each other. Beyond just them, there’s the wild west-flavored bounty hunter Odessa, chain-smoking nun Isabella, the worldly jazz pianist Shester, dependable engineer Miriam, and of course, the irrepressible luchador-masked man of mystery, Gallandeau, among many others. Having a zany cast of characters like this all together in one place feels like the kind of storytelling we enjoy so much in Japanese games. But at the same time, after seeing so many forgettably milquetoast light novel-style characters in the games and anime of recent years, it’s refreshing to come upon a game where the characters have an abundance of personality – where I know they’ll resonate with the audience I’m localizing the game for.
So…there you go. In a nutshell, this and more is what you have to look forward to when Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection finally makes its debut. Like a time capsule laden with the charms of a bygone era of RPGs, I think it’ll prove its worth to you as more than simply a pleasant surprise – I think it has the merit to stand proudly as one of Falcom’s finest.